Letting Nicole Go
For a parent with a child in the Middle East, worry becomes a constant companion
I began texting her with each bit of information or warning I heard.
Finally she asked me to stop. “The study abroad people are keeping us informed, Mom. We know what areas to avoid and when. They’ll evacuate us if they need to.”
The next month, John and I headed first to Istanbul and then to Jordan. We had decided to meet her during her break, which coincided with the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
At Dulles Airport, we checked our bags—including one for Nicole that was filled with clothes, boxes of Snyder’s sourdough pretzels and Halloween candy—and boarded the 11:30 p.m. flight to Istanbul. The news of the foiled terrorist plot had rattled me, and I took Advil PM, hoping to sleep.
When we arrived, John and I checked into our quaint hotel, climbing the circular staircase to the terrace later that night for dinner. The Blue Mosque lay before us, bathed in a pale blue light from the moonbeams washing over its aqua tiles. Six minarets flanked the mosque and towered over the Old Town of Sultanahmet. The Muslim call to evening prayer began, the imam’s melodious Arabic chant floating down the hill as we sat to eat.
During dinner, our son, Daniel, texted us from New York about the arrests in Jordan. “Can Nicole just come home?” he asked. Like me, he wanted her safely back.
Late the next morning, Nicole arrived. It had been almost two months since we’d held her, and I hugged her tightly, inhaling the sweet scent of her hair.
Although we’d been communicating regularly, she had generally kept the discussions light, talking about all the positive experiences, including a trip to the Red Sea and riding camels in the desert. She told us about her Muslim peer tutor’s family and the day the women taught her how to belly dance.
But now she revealed the things she’d held back. She told us of harassment on the streets and her inability to blend in. She wouldn’t wear the scarves I’d bought; it was deemed inappropriate for a non-Muslim unless she was visiting a mosque.
We flew with her to Amman on Oct. 27. At the Four Seasons, our car was inspected before being allowed to enter its gates, and inside, our belongings passed through an X-ray machine while we walked through a scanner—reminders of the omnipresent potential for danger.
We met Omar, our tour guide for Petra, in the lobby later that day. Nicole had warned me: “Only reach for a man’s hand to shake if he extends his first.” Omar reached out to shake our hands as Nicole greeted him in Arabic. His eyebrows raised in delight, he replied in kind.
In the ancient city of Petra, horses’ hooves and rickety wagon wheels clamored over the stones, carrying exhausted tourists up and down the steep hill to and from the site. Camels draped in colorful blankets loped by. The thick stench of horses and mules permeated the air. Western tourists mingled with Middle Eastern tourists. The Arab men wore either Western attire or long, white tunics and headdresses, while the women were covered—some in hijabs over their hair and necks, others in niqabs covering their entire bodies, long black gowns floating to the powdery earth.
Later, on our way back to the hotel, Omar said: “Please, tell your American friends to come to Jordan. Ever since the Arab Spring, Americans are afraid to come here. …We need the tourists.”
The next day, our last, we took a cab to the university with Nicole. “The man always sits in front in a taxi, the woman in back,” she reminded us. When we arrived, Nicole argued in Arabic with the cab driver for overcharging us. I stiffened with worry. But she later explained that everyone, including women, haggles over fares.
After a tour of the massive university, we headed to Nicole’s favorite café. The sidewalks were crammed, making it nearly impossible to avoid bumping shoulders with passersby. I recalled Nicole telling me she’d inadvertently bumped a man on a sidewalk one day. Forgetting the warnings never to look directly at or talk to a male stranger, she’d instinctively turned and said, “Assifeh” (“Sorry”). He circled back, taking that as a sexual come-on.
Above: Nicole, shown here at the Jordan River, experienced some tense days during her time abroad. (courtesy photo)